One thing that actor turned director Brady Corbet has demonstrated with his two films, The Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux, is that he has no problem hitting the high notes. Individual scenes – the prelude to Vox Lux for example, which captures the casual horror of a school shooting – are showy virtuoso directing performances. The problem comes when he tries to thread together these stand-alone moments into the fabric of a coherent, balanced film.

Vox Lux, a neon-brash portrait of pop diva Celeste (played by Natalie Portman as an adult and Raffey Cassidy as a teenage newcomer), is told in a chapter structure, so it’s episodic by design. Even so, the plot is prone to unnerving lurches, like a baked and boozed Celeste struggling to walk on high heels and spaghetti legs.

The film is at its most successful in the first half, which shows the genesis of a pop phenomenon: a star being born or a monster being spawned, depending on whether or not you happen to be downwind of the toxic cloud of Celeste’s displeasure and spite. A score, by the late Scott Walker is wonderfully eloquent, hanging like a question mark over Celeste’s trusting encounters with older men.

But once Portman takes over the role, as a jaded, jangled pop veteran, the picture becomes less persuasive. Her performance, like her music, is hectoring and synthetic. Perhaps that’s the point. Corbet’s repeated references to domestic terror attacks can be read as a suggestion that, like the school shooter, Celeste and her manufactured product are symptoms of a society in terminal decay. But if this really is the devil’s music, shouldn’t it be rather better?

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Watch a trailer for Vox Lux.



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